He fought a great temptation to stand behind the curtains of his room and watch the service lanes between the houses. Chains jangled, the Dobermans howled, and he stepped away from the glass determined to keep away. There were many good reasons why he should avoid glancing out. What if Dodo, home early from the clinic, chanced to look out and see him in an opposite window?
No better were the certain results of seeing the other man dashing between buildings, an experience which would create tormenting memories and foment obsession enough to last him till the end of his life: perhaps bring it on even sooner. No, this sneaking about was too much, he would stay away from the glass—but for whose sake? Until recently he had wished for a confrontation with Dodo, wondered when it would come and what its nature would be. Now nothing seemed worth the trouble. He hoped he never met the man, never saw so much as a photograph. Dodo had come out of nowhere—a military technician and weapons expert in the same wars which had claimed Buique’s proboscis—and he deserved nothing better than to return whence he had come.
What point was there in watching the rear when Angelica had said that Dodo used little discretion? In their own affair, she had insisted on—no, that was self-deception. He had feared Mome’s jealousy, Angelica being one prize the Emperor had been unable to catch.
How stupid I am, he thought. His mind was still trying to turn himself against her, all for the sake of jealousy. He must leave off picking at the past as though it were possible to repair it. Left to itself, his mind would drag in all of human history to justify a current event; he must keep himself anchored in the present.
Fortunately, he had his collection. The box waited, unopened, saved for this moment. Dodo was probably coming up the front walk now, ringing the bell, shouldering Leon aside as he stalked up to Angelica and—now, now. Fingering the tiny clasp, he listened for footsteps in the halls below. The only sound was that of a clock tolling the quarter hour. Then the silver catch clicked beneath his thumb, the hinges wailed faintly, and the smell of musty cedar filled his senses.
His whole being concentrated in the shadowy depths of the box, curling around myriad bottles whose contents he could not quite smell although he was acutely sensitive to their compositions. Every liquor, he had found, possessed a characteristic energy that no known instrument was capable of measuring; he had always been able to feel it. It might have been the subtle differences in specific gravity that he detected, in absolute density or perhaps in the way that each filtered light; surely he was more sensitive than an array of monitoring devices. Each essence had a radiance, incomparable, that penetrated glass. A vial of honeysuckle, when he held it, always provoked a deep humming in his belly; clove oil resonated with a spot at the nape of his neck; still others evoked the sympathies of his back, scrotum, spine. This was a mystery he had never resolved with the attitudes and methods of his science alone, but it had always been there to guide him in the most subtle practical moments of his work. To him, now, it had become a new science. He did not believe that Dodo could reproduce his essences, not without his special sensibility. Perhaps that was not a proper scientific attitude—such creations were meant to be reproducible by anyone—but at this point, this late in the day, who cared?
Now, so close to the chest full of distillations and synthetics, his body felt like a lightstorm: explosions of infinitesimal magnitude trailed through the paths of his nerves, met in the solar plexus, streaked outward again to warm his limbs and dazzle his brains. Even without smelling the liquids, he felt his rhinencephalon come alive, his olfactory bulbs swell almost to bursting. If only he could encounter these pure essences in a state of internal purity; but his nose was clogged with traces of scent gathered during the day. Dung and dust, blood and oil, musk and asphalt, rotting fruit; the cloacal stink of the street was compounded in a sensory mortar with the maze of Angelica’s perfume (a scent so complex it seemed labyrinthine), the bouquet of white wine, the fragrances of soup and his recent dinner. He could not shed these worldly smells, but suddenly he had no use for them, and less love. In the vials, after all, were distillates, purer than anything found in nature, the ripe fruit of his labor. It was at this level that his deepest mind was aroused, the bare neurons that collected dissolved scents connecting him with a realm where memory and immediacy were fused. No one could resist these essences, least of all him, for at the olfactory level every human being (save the impaired) was alike. A scent could reach past any psychological defense, weaken any warrior by inducing a primal longing for better days; one bottle, labeled “Nostalgia,” existed for that purpose. Humanity responded to more signals than it knew; if people were reassured on a basic biological level, their conscious mind would soon follow. Mix a little essential “Truth” with the slaver of a liar, and no one would disbelieve him. Joseph knew that it was possible both to smell a lie and to mask its scent.
Which to try first, which one? He dared not uncap “Love” in this house. “Courage” might be useful, but it was inappropriate for this moment. He wanted sensual fulfillment, consummation of his osmolagnia; he wanted to wash the hardships of the last six months from his psyche and render himself once more fresh as a newborn child, ready for anything.
His mouth began to water when he spied the proper bottle.
“Innocence,” it was called.
With trembling hands he reached into the box. Frightened?
Yes. This distillate could be particularly potent. Perhaps he should start with “Laughter” or “Ease.”
I’ve starved long enough, he thought. He had to get the stench of the world’s shit out of his nose, even if it took drastic measures.
He raised the bottle to his nose before uncapping it. The lid scraped as he worked at it and flecks of dried solution drifted over his nails. His heart caught, capturing his breath, but the first vapors penetrated his nostrils like camphor and an inhalation would have been redundant. He screwed the cap shut again with the last of his old sensibility and dropped the bottle into the chest. His hands fell to his sides as his back seemed to melt into the chair; then the room, including the shadows, filled with light.
Sitting backwards in a speeding car, the desert behind him, stars out at midday brighter than the sun. San Désirée on the horizon, dwindling rapidly, then lost in the plumes of violet dust streaming from the wheels of the car. Professor Lopez, his mentor, in the seat beside him, patting him on the wrist one moment, then fading away like a patch of cloud. The car dissolving, joining the trail of dust that streams from beneath his dragging heels. He is a stream of ashes, a river of smoke that runs into the sky and beautifies the sunset like a cosmetic powder. Shapes in the night of dust and ash: his grandfather’s toothless mouth, the hut where his mother dies delivering a stillborn girl, his Fombeh playmates and tormentors (other children), swallowed in the grit that has been whipped into a fury that may never settle. Now it settles, bringing down emotions, disappointments, hopes. He is a thin trail, a horizon where he is setting, an almost featureless line in an oscilloscope. No motion. No thought.
Until the first breath.
Scented light filled his lungs and for a moment his alveoli burned like a million gems set afire by the intake of oxygen. His head filled with thoughts bright and empty as air, mindless and resonant. He tried his hands, found them firm and whole; his muscles cried out to be used. He could taste his own saliva; feel the cilia sculling in his throat. And at last, when he was about to explode with the sensations that kept accreting in the darkness, he opened his eyes without knowing who he would be or where he would find himself this time.
The black room was quiet for an instant. Then, as the clock down the hall began to toll, Angelica came rushing in through a door suddenly flung wide to crash against the wall. She hung upon his newborn eyes. He knew her name, though she was strange and unfamiliar now. He wished to linger on her silhouette and slowly absorb the details of the room, the subtleties of her coiffeur, but there was something wrong already.
“Hurry, Joseph,” she said, pulling him forward by the hand. “You must go. Now, do you hear me? Now. Wake up, please … “
“I … I . . . “
“Come back to earth, you damn fool. Buique knows you’re in San Désirée, is that plain enough? Dodo called late and gave me the news. My Dodo. He said I should look out for you, you might come here and do me injury. Your cousin Miguel tipped them off; you trusted him too far. My God, aren’t you listening?”
“I am coming back,” he said. “Slowly. No need to—”
“Rush? You should have been out of here hours ago. How foolish of me. We could have been preparing. I am such a fool.”
“Don’t say that, my Angelica.”
He held her to him as though he were a blind man, she a creature made of light; but it would have been a lethal tableau.
She pulled away, almost rough with him.
“You make me forget myself. Let’s not both be idiots. I must get into Kmei’s house before he comes home. Tell me, old friend, how would you like a new name? In a moment’s time you’ll have one. A passport, that is.”
“You have one forged already?”
“All ready, but not forged. You’ll have to learn the signature, then you’ll be the counterfeiter. Your name, my love, is no longer Joseph Gidukyu. You are Kmei Dodo now.”
“Kmei Dodo,” he repeated, nodding at the name as though it were unfamiliar. He began to hear a distant ringing of bells and regretted that there was no time to enjoy them: they were memories. As the last tingling of “Innocence” ebbed from his nostrils, the name was his.
“I’ll get you money, clothes, whatever I can get immediately. But first, your passport is in another house.”
“My house,” he said, remembering the arrangement of furniture in his bedroom. “There.” He pointed at a dressing table invisible to her. “In my table there is a drawer within a drawer, on the right, where I keep essential papers.”
She nodded. “That’s good, Kmei lives in your house exactly as it was. If that’s where you kept your passport, that’s where his will be.”
“I’ll wait for you, though I wish I could come along.”
“And I wish I could come with you. Away from here. But Bamal is my life. Goodbye.”
When she was gone he walked to the window without fear of being seen now that it was night and the room was even darker. A dog barked, then all was silent below. He heard the gate clang, and after that nothing for five minutes. He paced the floor, grasping for the odd straws of memory that must be woven back into his comprehension. He was Dodo, yet he was not Dodo: Dodo was an enemy. Dodo had taken his house, his clinic—yes, he remembered that now. It was only fair that he should take Dodo’s name; with reversal, things returned.
Then the gate clanked and he heard light scuffing steps on the path below. Several minutes later she stood at the door, Leon beside her bearing a small suitcase. She stepped in and slid the passport into his hand at the instant Leon switched on a light; in the dark, the manservant had already closed the curtains.
“You look somewhat alike,” she said, “you and Dodo, but I think you will need your oils to make your lies convincing. Can you daub this photograph with some perfume that will persuade the customs officials that you are who you say you are?”
“Of course.” He turned to the box of essences. “There is nothing more persuasive than an ol-fact.”
The bottle of “Innocence” was still out of the box. When he replaced it, he felt a moment’s nausea, as though he had taken another mouthful of some rich food on which he had already gorged himself. He found another bottle labeled, “Believe Me.” Holding it at arm’s length, he touched his finger to the gleaming mouth of the vial, capped it again quickly, and opened the passport to paint its pages.
He found himself staring at a black man with a thin, almost skeletal face; his dark-pupilled eyes were rimmed by luminous white, his curls were close and tight. Joseph crossed the room to a mirror hanging by the door, and gazed at himself with new interest. His face was far thinner than that in the picture; his skin was not as dark as the Ife’s, though the black and white photograph would not betray him in this regard; and his hair was too long and wild, where it was not matted and full of stickers, to resemble that of the man in the photograph. He would need the help his chemicals offered, true enough; it would be hard to convince airport officials that Dr. Dodo had been sleeping in weeds.
“Are you ready?” she said.
He dropped a vial of “Courage” into his pocket. “Yes.”
“Then let’s go.”
“You’re coming with me?” he said with disbelief.
“As far as the airport, yes. If it comes to that, I can say you threatened my life, forced me to come along as your hostage.”
“Those men do not care enough for life to respect a ransom.
“Don’t argue with me, Joseph—Kmei, I mean. I will see you off.”